Against common sense: White male privilege and me

Against common sense: White male privilege and me

by David Kobrin

Orcas Island

As a historian, I know there can be two opposing accounts of the same event, both of which are equally accurate.

I’m not alluding to “alternative facts” or made up fictions. I mean exactly what I wrote: two stories that contradict each other, even though each is accurate, valid, and supported by facts that can be verified.

How can this be? It’s against common sense. When I look at my own life as an American white man, I could see it all as the story of my work. Such an accounting is valid. Yet, at the same time it is inadequate, incomplete, and misleading.

This “against common sense” duality in my own life helps me to understand why it’s so difficult to see the ways in which my life story is the result of white skin color, and the accident of being born into an upper middle class, well-educated family.

Here’s an example from my early life experience that might make clearer what I mean. One “achievement” I had as a teenager growing up in a New York City suburb was a certain proficiency in petty theft. (I call it “petty” partly because I was never caught or convicted.) I habitually stole candy from local stores as I made my way home from school, or to my after-school Hebrew School (from which I was expelled, by the way). I also regularly committed theft in other stores. If I believed a price charged for what I bought was unreasonably high, on my way out I would steal a lower priced item to compensate myself for what I thought were the shop’s exorbitant prices.

Then there were also the instances of “impersonating a police officer.” My brother fitted an imitation police siren under the hood of the family car. It was activated by a pull string near the steering wheel. For fun, we’d pull a car over, and then drive away as fast as we could. What a laugh! we thought. Hey, we were just kids — impersonating a police officer.

A question I ask now is, Why was I never caught?

It certainly was not my skill as a shoplifter, nor advance planning, nor cleverness, nor the speed of my car.

The answer, I believe, lies in the color of my skin. As an upper-middle-class Jew with white skin in an upper middle class, heavily biased neighborhood in the 1950s, I was never watched closely. Why would white storekeepers, or the police, have special focus on a “nice” young white-skinned fellow like me? My kind were not thought of as the teens that either white merchants, or the police, needed to have high on their watch list. Even if I had been caught and the cops called, the most likely outcome would have seen my parents coming down to the station to pick me up, and then scold appropriately for my totally foolish and inappropriate behavior.

What if, instead of a white-skinned David, I’d been a black-skinned David — who behaved in the same ways as the white-skinned David?

Once I entered the same stores, my skin color would have been a red alert to the store personnel. Let’s say the black-skinned version of me tried compensation theft, candy stealing, and impersonating a police officer. Once caught — because people were looking to catch me — most likely (in my neighborhood) it would not have been a phone call to my parents, but court and even, perhaps, reform school. Then I would have been on a very different path of life than the one I actually lived, a path that most likely would have led increasingly to anger, resentment, and more punishment.

Rather than a police record, what I did receive was encouragement, support, and the help I needed to apply to college. Given my thinking and behavior as a teenager, I was only able to do that because of my white skin, and the privileges that came with an upper-middle-class background.

The most important point for me is this surprising duality: two differing versions of my teenage years are valid. Once I began to see my own life through these dual lenses, it became obvious to me that, no matter what I had personally done, my life’s course depended, also, on skin color, gender, and family connections. The benefits of white skin and family connections continued throughout my life. I believe that everyone’s life has at least two stories, all of which are worth examining.